The time setting of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is in the 1930’s and 1940’s, before the civil rights movement, but in the midst of the Great Depression and World War II. Stamps, Arkansas is a segregated Southern town in which Maya is raised by her grandmother. This was an era before the civil rights movement when neighborhoods and schools were segregated. Maya narrates, ‘In Stamps the segregation was so complete that most Black children didn’t really, absolutely know what whites looked like.’ Black schools were not offered the same resources as their black counterparts.
For black men, violence in the form of lynching was common. The decades in which Maya grew up were an interesting time in America. “I know why the caged bird sings” (1969 ) by Maya Angelou is a feminist biography whose primary themes represent racial discrimination and oppression as well the coming-of-age of Maya herself. It is a descriptive memoir that has a lot of rhetorical devices that draw attention to this. She speaks honestly about being raped as a teenager and defying her oppressors by fighting to stay free of discrimination and the patriarchy cages of power. Her story has been noticed as the tale of so many African American females growing up silenced by discrimination. The 1930’s and 1940’s was a challenging time for race relations in America. Despite the decline of such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan, racism and discrimination was as strong as ever in the Southern states.
In “I know why the caged bird sings” there is obvious racial discrimination between the whites and blacks. Angelou has used the symbols of this ‘ free bird ‘to describe the prevailing whiteness and the ‘ caged bird ‘ for those oppressed dark races. The poem is a symbol of the freedom of the mind, the soul, the spirit, the beauty, the power of the body. The use of metaphors and repetition is one of the most commonly seen aspects of Angelou’s poems that show the struggle of slavery. Angelou uses the phrase “caged bird” multiple times throughout the poem which could show that freedom is precious and that being in a “cage” is tough. The cage, or the slave owners, is what is restricting the African Americans from being free.
She also repeats the phrase “so he opens his throat to sing” quite a few times in her poem. Historically, singing was one of the most popular way to let out feelings and a way of expression for the slaves. Lastly, one of the metaphors that stood out was the “grave of dreams” reference. Grave of dreams seems to be a loss of hope of freedom and the chance to living the “American Dream” for the slaves. It is like saying their dreams of living life as a free person are dead and buried.
Along with metaphors and repetition, Angelou uses symbols to show the life of a slave. One of the most common symbols Angelou uses is the phrase “caged bird”. “Caged bird” means exactly how it sounds, trapped. It is a symbol for the African slaves, they were birds trapped in a world where they couldn’t be free. “Narrow cage” is another example of a symbolic presence in the poem. “Narrow cage” can be seen as the oppressors of the slaves, they stood in the way of their freedom and happy life. On the other hand “free bird” is the white race that retains their freedom.
The last symbol that is seen is “fat worms” which can be deciphered into opportunity and hope. Angelou writes of the fat worms being in another place, where she one day hopes to be. Figurative language is one of the more important aspects of Angelou’s poem, as in the phrases “leaps on the back of the wind” and “dips his wings in the orange sun rays.” This give a sense of freedom and aliveness to the bird, which can be also be thought of as the hope of freedom. Also “narrow cage” and “bars of rage” are figurative and give the sense of terror and the fear that the slaves had toward their “owners” and the fact of them being trapped in the nightmare they lived every day.
A strong example of racism and discrimination in the story is the graduation scene in which Maya Angelou was able to surmount the obstacles that stood in her way of intellectual develop and find ‘higher ground.’ One of the largest factors responsible for Angelou’s academic success was her dedication to and capacity for hard work, ‘My work alone has awarded me a top place…No absences, no tardinesses, and my academic work was among the best of the year’ (Angelou 13-14). Angelou worked hard and read a great deal in order to be able to perform on such a level, in spite of the fact that she had much less access to the quality of teachers, school environment and other resources available to whites because of her color.
Angelou overcame the isolation and loss of her voice and low self-esteem that can develop from childhood trauma and being in a segregated environment. She looked to those who had achieved higher ground before her, in books, in music, and in art. She completely memorized The Rape of Lucrece, was well versed in Shakespeare, knew the life and times of Booker T. Washington, and was aware of the enduring power of black music.
Like Washington would advocate, through hard work, education, love of others and making herself indispensable by way of her accomplished development, Angelou was able to rise above the disadvantages of her environment repeatedly. But Angelou still did not know why the caged bird sings. The caged bird sings because it has the will to sing, the will to live. It sings whether it is in an environment where it is free to explore, or it sings in a locked, confined and a cage defining its parameters. Much as Angelou will come to discover the whites defining the ‘black’ parameters is an obstacle that can be overcome by being proud to be herself and continue to work hard and endure with a voice that is proud, determined and loving.
Once Henry sings the poem about reaching the ground one’s fathers struggled to reach, Angelou has an epiphany that will allow her to find herself and come into possession of the one tool necessary not only to overcome the obstacles imposed by the white school board but the ones imposed by all racist whites or anyone else that stands in the way of her right to ‘sing’ as who and what she is. Angelou recognizes this quality because she knows about Booker T. Washington, she has explored literature, culture and art-i.e.., she has developed a soul, a soul that will accept no unjustly imposed boundaries.
She is now free to sing as she continues to act as a bridge in the here-and-now, built by the struggles of the past, forged for the struggles of those in the future, that others may also reach higher ground singing: ‘We were on top again. As always, again. We survived. The depths had been icy and dark, but now a bright sun spoke to our souls. I was no longer simply a member of a proud graduating class of 1940; I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race’ (Angelou 21). Angelou knows she would let down all those who have struggled and given her encouragement if she did not rise above the limitations of her own time and place.
Maya Angelou’s, “I know why the caged bird sing” is an interesting and inspirational story about oppression and racial discrimination in the 1930’s and 1940’s and rising above it to be the best you can be despite your life circumstances. One can easily relate to the metaphor of a caged bird that moves on through life and tries to make the best of it. Although Maya Angelou had a life containing of ongoing abuse and discrimination, she rose above her unfortunate circumstances and lived her life to the fullest. She continued on after being raped, being stabbed by her stepmother, and even becoming a teenage mother. The adversity gave her strength, and the diversity of family and environment resulted in her knowledge of the world and people around her.